Digital Cinema is Still Failing Deaf Patrons

By Patrick von Sychowski | March 7, 2014 12:52 am PST
12 Years A Slave With Subtitles

Who remembers Dolby’s ScreenTalk ? Ten years ago it was a revolutionary system whereby using a small projector subtitles could be projected onto the bottom of a screen showing 35mm film, or displayed through a reflective system mounted at the rear of the cinema, enabling deaf and hearing impaired cinema patrons to enjoy the latest film releases. (It also enabled real-time audio descriptions for the visually impaired.) This eliminated the needed for special and costly 35mm prints with subtitles in English laser burnt in.

At a time when DVDs and television captioning were giving deaf people the ability to enjoy films like never before, it seemed the cinema was finally not too far behind. Yet ScreenTalk never took off in a major way, primarily because digital cinema was ‘just around the corner’ and with it, the promise of subtitling ANY show at ZERO extra cost.

It has taken another decade for digital cinema to become ubiquitous, but surely it has been worth the wait for deaf patrons? Sadly, the reality today is that cinemas are still very much failing deaf and hearing impaired patrons, despite there being no technical obstacles to subtitling film screenings.

This issue was first highlighted in 2011 by Charlie Swinbourne in a Guardian article called “Cinemas are letting deaf people down” where he pointed out that “Subtitled screenings are unreliable and hard to find, but digital technology means cinemas now have little excuse,” even though less than half of all cinemas in the UK were digital at the time.

He asks us to imagine going to a film screening where the sound ends up not working, cinema staff try to fix it, fail and issue you with an apology and a comp ticket. That’s all too often what happened with subtitles for deaf patrons.

For deaf people, the chain of events I’ve described isn’t just a one-off – it’s happened to nearly every deaf cinema-goer I know. Except it’s not the sound that goes missing, it’s subtitles. Which we need to understand the film. Right now, deaf film fans have very little trust left in cinema chains, and many people I know have stopped bothering; they prefer to watch DVDs (or, ahem, downloads) at home.

He highlights the case of members of a Facebook group called ‘Deaf people are alive 7 days a week, not just Sunday/Monday/Tuesday’ set up by frustrated deaf and hearing impaired cinema fans.

Another of the [Facebook] group’s members, Martin Griffiths, told me that three out of his last four visits to his local cinema in Cardiff ended without him seeing the advertised subtitled film. While his ticket was refunded, his travel and time were not compensated for.

Missing a film might not seem like a big deal, but I know deaf people who’ve been let down on special occasions, or couples who’ve booked a babysitter so they can have their first night out in months, only to return home early, disappointed. As Woolfe says, “the reluctance to improve the service for deaf film fans is extraordinary. It’s almost a ‘like it or lump it’ attitude. We have a right to much better access.”

So three years on, with all cinemas digitised and subtitling more established you would think that this would be sorted. Sadly, that does not appear to be the case.

Show Me The Subtitles!

Richard Turner, who went deaf three years ago, has written an extensive post detailing the problems he and others have faced in cinemas. While not a formal data anlysis of failure reports, it ads up to more than a series of individual failures. His post is worth reading in full, but I will quote a few key extracts.

Closed Caption Showtimes

Turner begins by pointing out that despite film producers and distributors going to great lengths to ensure that both Hollywood blockbusters and art-house releases have English subtitles, deaf and hearing impaired still find themselves in a cinematic ghetto when it comes to going to the screenings.Forget joining your (hearing) friends on a weekend trip to the multiplex, weekday matinees are more common (too bad if you are working then) and most only have one showing per week.

The screenshot on the left shows special screenings for The Grand Budapest Hotel in the London area. Doesn’t exactly make for a spontaneous night out, does it?

At the cinema, the trailers, adverts and announcements are also typically not shown with subtitles (although subtitled trailer are widely available), but it is then when the feature is about to start that things go wrong, as Turner writes:

Over the last couple of weeks I have been to the cinema three times at different cinemas across London. Unfortunately, on the first two occasions I wasn’t actually able to watch the film. I ended up having to leave shortly after the film started due to subtitling failures.

On the first occasion, when I went to see ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ at a Cineworld cinema in Central London, only every other line of the subtitles was visible on the screen, so I couldn’t follow enough of the dialogue to watch it. The cinema manager explained to me that this was due to human error and incorrect scaling of the film for the size of the projection screen.

The second time, at my local Odeon cinema in South Woodford on a Sunday, there were no subtitles on the film at all, despite the fact that it was advertised on their website, posters and flyers as ‘Subtitled Sunday’. The cinema manager told me that the distributor had sent the wrong, un-subtitled film to the cinema in error, but nobody had noticed it before they screened it.

On both occasions, I complained to the cinema manager, who apologised, gave me a refund and complimentary vouchers to see a future film. But I left feeling upset and frustrated, since it wouldn’t be easy for me to go and watch the same film again and both cinema trips had been ruined.

He is not alone in this experience, writing that some deaf people he’s been in touch with told him “that they now have a drawer-full of complimentary vouchers from the cinemas.” The comments section backs him up too.

Melinda Napier – Wimbledon Odeon is very poor in showing subtitles. Have lost count of times the film started without subtitles. Have complained, received free vouchers, etc but still it continues.

Sue – The Curzon in Soho may be fine but the one in Richmond never shows subtitled films. Older people may not want to visit Soho in the evenings.

Steve Day – Excellent blog Richard, your experience matches mine completely. Refunds and tickets just don’t cover the anger and humiliation you feel.

What makes this all the more poignant is when you read the effusive praise from deaf people who have been to cinema (many for the first time) and enjoyed a film with subtitles:

As a film student, film is my life. I love everything about cinema, but when I lost my hearing I was unable to watch a majority of films. Subtitled showings allow me to partake in my love…

Subtitled cinema is a life saver. My wife and I are regular filmgoers for 30 years. My wife suffered a brain tumor which affected her hearing so movies were out until I found this site. A big thank you for subtitled films.

There are many, many more testimonies (here).

Screenshot 2014-03-07 16.09.15

Honourable Exceptions

It should be noted that there are honourable exception. The list on the left doesn’t stretch far enough to include the Sheffield Showroom, which has no less than four screenings in one week, (all on a Monday, but even so), while the Aylesbury Oden has both Sunday afternoon and Thursday evening screenings. Cinemas outside London seem better at screening subtitles films in the evening (during the week), at least judging by this list.

But Turner also has some praise for cinemas in London:

The Curzon Cinema in Soho and the Vue Cinema in Piccadilly, London, for instance, have both been brilliant, with very helpful staff and great access. The London Subtitling Group meets regularly at the Curzon Cinema in Soho to watch subtitled films together in a friendly, relaxed environment. I wish there were more cinemas like this, which champion great access and inclusion for all their customers.

Cinema vs. Theatre

It is interesting to contract Turner’s experience in the cinema with his post about seeing Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse, where the performance was captioned by STAGETEXT (motto: “Making arts and entertainment accessible to deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people”). The National Theatre even reserves a certain number of tickets for people with hearing disabilities. The effect it can have is both profound and empowering, as Turner writes:

Going to captioned plays like this makes me feel more positive and helps to build my confidence. It is also great to meet friends and make new ones at these performances and events, which are made accessible to us via captioning. When I first lost my hearing I just wanted to stay indoors and retreat into my shell because I found it really difficult to try and socialise and to be able to follow other people’s conversations.

Compare and contrast this with his experience at the cinema:

When I was complaining about the subtitling failure to the cinema manager of Cineworld recently I saw an elderly hard-of-hearing woman there with her granddaughter. The elderly lady was clearly upset but she was too embarrassed to speak to the manager about it. Her granddaughter had to do it on her behalf. But this subtitling failure had ruined their cinema trip together.

The reason problems with subtitling is under reported could be because many patrons feel awkward raising the issue with the manager. “We simply keep accepting the vouchers from the cinema and the problem goes unreported,” Turner writes.

Situation in the USA

In the United States, where accessibility to cinemas have become an issue for courts and legislators, the situation is also coming to a boil. Last year there was a major lawsuit filed against a New England cinema chain for its alleged failure to provide access:

Bow Tie Cinemas, which has theaters in Hartford, West Hartford and nine other locations in the state, is being sued by the Connecticut Association of the Deaf for failing to provide access for deaf and hard of hearing patrons.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on Tuesday and lists three plaintiffs along with the association. It claims that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Bow Tie is unlawfully denying equal access to “a routine social experience that hearing people enjoy as a matter of course: going to the movies with their family and friends.”


However, some cinemas had already begun to act on this issue by then, including Regal, which invested over USD $10 million in special glasses (see photo above) developed by Sony and compatible with their digital cinema system to provide both subtitles and headphones for an auxilary audio channel for audio description or enhanced audio tracks:

Raymond Smith Jr. has been trying for nearly two decades to make the movie industry listen to the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing.

This month, the senior executive at Regal Entertainment Group will come closer to his goal.

His company, the nation’s largest theater chain, will have nearly 6,000 theater screens equipped with closed-captioning glasses that could transform the theatrical experience for millions of deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons who have shunned going to the cinema because previous aids were too clunky or embarrassing to use.

Mr Smith had a particular cause for pursuing this issue as his son is deaf. One would hope that other cinemas are following suite without having to have senior managers whose relatives are directly affected or beinh compelled to by legislation or courts.

Subtitles Aren’t Just for Deaf But For All of Us

Even if you don’t know somebody who is deaf, deafened or hard of hearing, this issue should matter to you. Demographics in developed countries means that the population is getting older and that means that more and more cinema patrons will at some point face hearing issues. Barely into the 40 myself, I find myself more often than not switching on subtitles for DVDs and Netflix, though I tell myself this is because of poor audio mixing. Foreign language films can be a blessing, because they always provide subtitles, which does not distract from the experience. Here is Singapore most of the English-language films I see are shown with Chinese subtitles and I have frankly stopped noticing them, so please don’t come and say that they are ‘distracting’.

There really is no excuse for there not to be more and better showing of subtitled films. Cinemas are already demonstrating their progressive (and business savvy) nature by hosting more mother-and-baby as well as autistic-friendly screenings, so they could easily do more for the deaf community and actually see an improved bottom line as a result.

Here are six suggestions as to what more cinemas could be doing:

  1. Adding more than just one subtitled showing per week. Even two matinees per week or one evening screening could have a huge impact;
  2. Train staff better to run the subtitled showings, including tech check rehearsals to make sure that the DCP’s subtitling is working properly in advance of the screening;
  3. Make sure that trailers are also shown with subtitles (that’s how you get cinema patrons to come back for more screenings);
  4. Be prepared to explain to any hearing patron why some shows are with subtitles and be prepared to give THEM a comp voucher, should they prove unreasonable about it;
  5. Ensure that listings and notifications for screenings of subtitled films are properly updated and shared in all relevant outlets;
  6. Do a better job of advertising subtitled films on your own websites and don’t just rely on;

In conclusion it should be noted that cinemas in the UK have done a lot to cater to the special needs of their cinema goers. This is not just the case for deaf patrons, but also blind and visually impaired, those needing wheelchair access, requiring a carer (the CEA card is a very commendable scheme in this regard) or having an autism-spectrum condition. But more could be done, especially for the hearing impaired.

This should not be seen as charity but smart business sense, because deaf people buy tickets, sodas and popcorn just like other cinema goers. And when they are given access with the aid of subtitles, they are (to borrow a slogan from Odeon) fanatical about film.

Patrick von Sychowski
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